Rene Johnson

Have your say

RENE Johnson, who has died aged 92, was a born entertainer whose talent was fostered by her show business father.

She began acting when she was three but developed into a pianist, dancer, singer and comedian and was still leading sing-a-longs in public houses until about four years ago.

Even when she moved three years ago to a residential care home near her family, in Cheshire, she would play the piano for the residents.

When she was 84, she was still discovering new outlets for her talent when she was spotted at a Christmas Party at the Queens Hotel in Leeds and invited to perform at the Leeds International Jewish Theatre Festival. That led to her playing the piano regularly at the Jewish Community Centre, in Stonegate Road, Leeds, until about two years before she left Leeds.

She was born in Hunslet, Leeds, into a theatrical family and was the elder of two daughters of William and Rose Johnson. Her sister Audrey also danced and sang and they performed together as children.

She attended Beeston Hill School and then Hillside Secondary School.

Her father, who was always known as Bill, was a comedian who played the trumpet and kept the White House pub, in Hunslet, which was a popular venue for music hall artists of the day. She and her father would entertain in an act called Will Johnson and Rene.

As a teenager when she was performing at a charity event for the war effort at the Melbourne Hotel, Crossgates, Leeds, during the Second World War, she was spotted by top band leader of the day, Joe Loss, who was in the audience and he signed her up on the spot.

She stayed with his band for three-and-a-half years touring the country and entertaining troops for 16 weeks a year.

After leaving the band she worked with comedian Albert Modley who appeared regularly at the Stanhope Hotel, in Rodley, between Leeds and Bradford, and also toured with his brother Alan, a drummer, in a show called Follow Me Around.

She played the London Palladium three times during the war, presenting their act in a show called Jazz Jamboree for the Forces Network on Sundays, and eventually went on to play practically every theatre in the country, including Leeds Empire and the City Varieties.

Later she played one long round of public house entertainment mostly in hostelries run by her father, including The Haddon Hall, in Kirkstall, Leeds; the Royal Hotel, Boston Spa which Rene ran for 14 years, and the Angel in Allerton Bywater, near Leeds, which she kept with her third husband, Sidney Barnstable, for about 10 years.

Living across the road from her at the time in Allerton Bywater was a small boy aged about eight who was very interested in show business and, having recognised the entertainer in him she helped to encourage him.

He was Mark Curry who was later to make his mark on television, beginning with the Blue Peter programme, and who will give a eulogy at her funeral next week.

She specialised in variety and music hall performances and wherever she appeared so did the crowds, so she became known as The Pied Piper of Song.

In 1976, she was voted Best Pub Entertainer of the Year.

At 86, she still played the piano at Leeds City Varieties justifying her belief: “You are as young as you feel, and if you have talent, why waste it?”

Ever the entertainer she was still playing three weeks before she died and was singing the night before she died.

Her sister and her third husband predeceased her.

She did not have any children, but is survived by her nieces Vicky Courage who lives in Cheshire, and Sue Shevill who lives in Leeds.

Her funeral will be held at Chester Crematorium on Monday at 11.30am.